Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

HarperCollins Publishers © 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-233451-0
880 pages, $35.00

When the moon blows up for no apparent reason, people first wonder what happened. Then the fuzzy, expanding cluster of seven enormous boulders that once made up Earth’s sole satellite becomes a curiosity. But once the scientists realize what’s going to happen next, the novelty quickly turns to fear.

Dinah MacQuerie and Ivy Xiao, stationed aboard the International Space Station or “Izzy,” soon learn that they’ll never be able to set foot on land again. That they’ll spend the rest of their lives on Izzy, in weightless space. That the families they’d left behind are as good as dead. From the moment “Doc” Dubois understands that exponential collisions of moon debris will bring down a “hard rain” of bolides which will destroy all life on the surface of the Earth, the race is on. Experts predict humanity will have two years to find a way to live in space until it’s safe to return—at least five thousand years.

I’m not giving anything away by revealing these details. The moon’s demolition happens in the opening sentence. Understanding that the further degradation and spread of its remains will eventually render the surface of the Earth uninhabitable comes close on the heels of that first, almost unnoticed disaster. Seveneves isn’t about that destruction. It’s about the frantic plan to save as many humans as possible by getting them off the surface before it’s too late. It’s also about the strength—and weakness—inherent in all of us, and the price everyone pays for one person’s hubris.

So much of the story takes place on Izzy that she almost becomes a character in her own right. Stephenson does an excellent job of portraying life there, as well as the experience of weightlessness and the quirky problems and challenges it presents. As Izzy fills up and builds out, her residents new and old learn to handle crowded living conditions, safeguard their fragile and vulnerable habitat and now scarce resources, and shortening tempers. In most cases, those involved grow closer, more bonded. But human nature will not long be denied and when it surfaces in the survivors’ tenuous setting, it starts a chain of events that eventually lead to one of the major plot points of the book.

Seveneves is definitely hard sci-fi; Stephenson does a good job of explaining the physics of orbital mechanics and the technological details of living in space, most of which even I understood enough to follow. I must admit, however, that some of his explanations seemed to plumb unnecessary depths, and I skimmed past before I could fall asleep. Even so, the premise of the story is fascinating, delving into sociological as well as cultural obstacles and solutions, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book.

The last third jumps ahead 5,000 years. Humanity has created a complete habitat ring in space around the Earth, and evolved into very different and distinct races. Life as it was pre-zero is only a memory and an Epic taught to the children. I found Stephenson’s description of this new human society fascinating and, in many ways, relatable, but somehow in the shift, he lost me. Perhaps it is because, in my opinion, he told me what the characters were thinking and feeling instead of showing me through the characters themselves. The end could have been much more compelling. Plenty of exciting things take place. Still, I didn’t feel what I imagine the characters were supposed to feel. When the monumental twist came, it fell flat for me. I was left unsatisfied and unmoved.

I’ve read other reviews of this book that disagree with my opinion here, so perhaps it is only a matter of taste. As this is my first Stephenson read, I can’t say whether this is a normal part of his style. I do know I enjoyed it enough that I won’t let it stop me from reading another of his novels. I encourage you to read it, and decide for yourself.